Editor’s Pick
MAY 8, 2012 8:00AM

Writing for Free

Rate: 55 Flag

 

 

Biff and his new wife Blythe in the Starbucks line. If he turned around and saw me, he’d bring up the “writing for free” thing. Because that’s what he always does. So I put my head down. Try not to breathe.

 

It doesn't work.

 

Biff is decked out in a seersucker jacket, linen slacks and sandals. Black hair slicked back. But it was Blythe, blonde, tanned, toned and a wicked grin that said, “Maybe you’re next and won’t it be fun?” to every man in view, who caused Biff to turn and spot me.

 

Here’s what happened.

 

Blythe smiled at the slack jawed barista as she handed him a pound of coffee, and the baseball sized diamond on her finger, caught a shaft of sunlight that bounced off the silver espresso machine temporarily blinding the barista. He dropped a pitcher of boiling milk on his arm, and screamed out in pain, “I’m an actor! I don’t need this shit!”

 

Biff and Blythe turned politely away from the yelp of pain and that’s when Biff saw me.  Eager for a distraction he asked, “Hey stranger! You still writing for free?”

 

I shrugged. Changed the subject.

 

“Been traveling Biff?”

 

“We’re just back from Cabo. Romantic get away for me and the little lady here.”

 

Blythe giggled.

 

“But this summer, we’re taking the kids to Paris. We figure it’s time.”

 

“That’s great Biff. You too Blythe. Well, gotta get back to all that free writing. See ya!”

 

Walking out the door, it struck me again that I never told anybody the real answer to that “Why do you write for free?” question.

 

So maybe it was time. 

 

The answer is that I never write for free.  Never have. Never will. There is always an investment and a return. The return might not be money. But there is an investment and a return.

 

For those looking at the world as something explainable by an excel spreadsheet, my answer might sound strange.

 

Where’s the return on investment if you write for free? Where’s the money?

 

Money? I love the stuff. Wish I had more. I wake up at 4:00 am a lot and think about all the ways I can get more, worry about not having enough. Once I had a lot more. 

 

Maybe if money were my sole goal, I would have more. But for whatever reason, it’s not my sole goal. No nobility in that. Just the way I was hard wired.

 

When I write, I have other goals besides the literal exchange of writing for cash. All of them include a return on investment. 

Here are 6 reasons to write. Situations where I give something to get something

1. Doing what I do best. Up till 2008 I had one job at a time. Now I’m a contractor. I often do the same type of work I’ve always done. They call it “talent or change management.” It means helping make people more valuable to an organization during tough times. I work regularly.  But I rarely do what I do best. My job is to be an extra pair of hands.

So now when I want to do what I do best, I write. My investment is my time. My return? Doing something that feels like it matters. Doing one of the things I do best.

 

 2. Writing is really hard. Bad writing is easy. But filling the blank page with words that grab a person by the heart and make them want to read? That’s hard. Don’t think so? Try it. I don’t always succeed, but when I do, my investment in the writing gives me back a return that is like a handful of diamonds. Huge investment. Huge reward. The challenge of doing something hard.

 

3. People respond when I write. I used to be a special education teacher. I helped start a workforce development program for high risk dropouts, have written and delivered senior management programs on visioning and succession planning, I’ve trained hundreds to run retail operations, and thousands to use their strengths. And the BEST part of all that? It’s when people respond.

Same with the writing. The return I get when somebody says they read something I wrote is like climbing a mountain and breathing in the sky.

 

4. I need the practice. In “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell cites 10,000 hours as the amount of practice time one needs to become really good at something. If Malcolm Gladwell says it, that’s enough for me. I have closed in and passed that Gladwell number.

 

5. I get to read other writers. I learn. I copy. I get better.

 

6. I get to share what I see as important. How cool is that?

 

Investment in time. Return in getting better at what I do. And having fun!

I know the larger social justice implications of writing when no one gets paid. It’s either a travesty or a genius business model. A debate for another time. 

My writing is an investment.  But it’s also self-promotion. Self promotion that could always lead back to (Surprise!) Money.

Looking back, I’ve written all my life. Writing training materials, and ghost writing books going back 20 years. All through that time when I worked for one company at a time.

But it’s only since the economy blew up that have I really made my writing investment in constant self promotion.

I co-authored a book sold on commission to a not for profit who will use the book sales for fund raising. That book will be out September 28.

My book “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs,” the first original approach to finding work since "What Color Is Your Parachute?" will be released with national distribution in January 2013.

And “Street Corner Spirits” a collection of my “Chicago Guy” essays on the Ezine Fictionique and the blog aggregator Open Salon is forthcoming.

 

See all that self-promotion? Starting with a story in a Starbucks line?

It looks like writing for free. But look closer.

It’s an investment. Looking for a return.

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Oh Roger, YES! This is all so true, especially of the value we get from reading each other's words. How much is human connection worth? Can you quantify that? And isn't that why we write? I want all the details on you upcoming books. Congratulations!
Oh Roger, YES! This is all so true, especially of the value we get from reading each other's words. How much is human connection worth? Can you quantify that? And isn't that why we write? I want all the details on you upcoming books. Congratulations!
Yes! (an early-morning fist-pump & promise to get back here to you when the work-storm has died down a bit.) A brilliant answer to the never-ending question.
Like you, I've written all my life.
I never thought of it as a way to make a living-it was something I had to do to organize my thoughts.
I joined OS mainly as a place where I could “let off steam” by trading insults with “liberals”-but it gradually got to be a place where I “archived” my thoughts “in the cloud”.

I found that some people actually understood the way I think-
I've been labeled a “genius” since I was 6-- When I went to college at OSU ( the Big Farm) I was quite content to learn that not only was my input in “saving the world” not needed, I was actively discouraged from giving it. Fine with me- I was going to go live on top of a mountain and shoot anyone who came near me.

love of my family kept me from doing that, so I did photography and computers, and worked on my own notion of how the human mind worked.

On the way, in computers, I greatly admired the “Linux' and gnu “copyleft” hacker crowd, who created, apparently just for the joy of doing it,Operating systems and and programs, that anyone could have and use for free.

That's how I look at writing now, I'm doing it for my own enjoyment and enlightenment, and anyone who can get anything from it is more than welcome, they're enjoyed.

Writing for and to and about “Free” is the best kind of writing
Like you, I've written all my life.
I never thought of it as a way to make a living-it was something I had to do to organize my thoughts.
I joined OS mainly as a place where I could “let off steam” by trading insults with “liberals”-but it gradually got to be a place where I “archived” my thoughts “in the cloud”.

I found that some people actually understood the way I think-
I've been labeled a “genius” since I was 6-- When I went to college at OSU ( the Big Farm) I was quite content to learn that not only was my input in “saving the world” not needed, I was actively discouraged from giving it. Fine with me- I was going to go live on top of a mountain and shoot anyone who came near me.

love of my family kept me from doing that, so I did photography and computers, and worked on my own notion of how the human mind worked.

On the way, in computers, I greatly admired the “Linux' and gnu “copyleft” hacker crowd, who created, apparently just for the joy of doing it,Operating systems and and programs, that anyone could have and use for free.

That's how I look at writing now, I'm doing it for my own enjoyment and enlightenment, and anyone who can get anything from it is more than welcome, they're enjoyed.

Writing for and to and about “Free” is the best kind of writing
I like this post a lot. I, too, am writing for free, but also seeking an outside publisher. One does not cancel our the other. Creative work is like breathing to me...and a way to share the deepest part of myself.
Fabulous. And wonderful. Congratulations on the upcoming books.
True--if you enjoy it, you're getting paid. People who enjoy running--which some consider torture--do it for free and many become good at it and maybe even win a paying marathon, but most won't. But the endorphins keep them happier than the couch potatoes.

r
I got paid to write for 40 years, but it was a narrow field that seldom allowed or encouraged any freedom of expression.

Nowadays, I write mostly -- but not exclusively -- on OS. Why? Because it's fun, because I "meet" new people and because I get to do things previously denied me.

Payment enough for me.
Jaime-- "the human connection." Exactly.

JH--It really is a never ending question. Much bigger than any site, my ep is bigger than your ep, or any of the annoyances any of us have with the system. And sometimes its hard to reconcile big picture ideas like distribution of wealth with that joy that comes with writing.

Herr R-- A place to organize thoughts is an excellent example of what I'm talking about here. The kind of thing I was hoping people would offer up. And the fact that the reasons evolve over time is a really important truth.

Con--The analogy with running is pitch perfect.

Patrick---Like breathing. Yes!

Mime--Thank you!
This is so true - just what I needed to read this morning - thank you Chicago Guy for putting this into words - you are a treasure here and I enjoy what you write - I always read but don't always comment - sometimes I don't think I have anything intelligent to add to the conversation.
Frank and B.--- The two of you, and Jeremiah and others--have taught me a lot in this weird virtual classroom of life. The thought in this piece is a direct reflection of what good teachers you are.

So again---there has been an investment and a payoff. None of it was "free." What you learned and through your examples taught me was ALL earned. Not free. And to label it as free devalues it all.
So you know Blythe, too! A smart and finely writ piece, Rog.
LammChop--Thank you so much! To me (and maybe this is just me, but I doubt it) the real value in commenting isn't the intelligence or lack of it--the real value is in letting someone else know you are there.

With real, two way communication vanishing into the fairy dust of the internet---I think letting another person know you are there might be the single most important thing of all.
Excellent answers to common questions, CG.
Writing for free also frees you up. It lets you risk and encourages you so that the seeds here may be planted later, even for money. I've written for money and I've written for no money. It's more fun to write when money is out of the equation. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to be read in either case.
Yes! The next time someone scolds me for "giving it away for free," I will send them here to your most excellent piece. Rewards are not always monetary but that doesn't make them any less valuable.
I don't think anyone could have said this better. Print it out and hand it to Biff next time. He can read it on his way to Paris.
DON'T LET THIS IDIOT DRAG YOU DOWN. HE SEEMS VERY BOORISH AND RUDE.

Throughout my life, through a lot of changes, if I have asked myself, what do a really want? The answer has always been to write.

The poorest person is that person who did not do what they really wanted to do in life. They did not follow their dream because of other "costs."
yet there are bills to pay
you know what they say
money get away
get a good job with good pay

share a smile
share a laugh
there's wisdom in all of that

you're a writer
a good man
your voice is strong
i hear
sweet home chicago in my head
I have read the prigs who point to the foolhardiness of the pursuit, but readership is the real reward.
How terrific this was. It's as if you read the collective mind and were able to express it for all of us. There are such rewards to this free writing thing, I agree. Still, I wish I could pay you for this -- it was so good .
I applaud you that money is not your "sole goal"...and every time I read something you have written, I celebrate that writing is your "soul goal!" We pour parts of ourselves out onto the page and when that makes someone laugh, or weep, or shout "yes," it is like standing on a mountain, breathing in the sky! No one could have said this better!!
Lea---That "risk" factor is such an important part of this. On a paid gig to write a training manual for a retailer I once called the book by the (stolen) title "A Clean Well Lighted Place." It fit perfectly. But the owner was not amused.

Lisa--Those messages really do come out as scolding! Send them here!

Matt---Know her? Oh yeah. We all know her.

j---This piece goes WAY beyond his attention span!

Thanks Chuck. Same song in my head!

Damon--"Prigs" is exactly right. As is the reward!

fernsy --between your excellent piece the other day and that comment---you did pay me.

Kathy---and you should see him when he drinks. . . . .
But I love this "They did not follow their dream because of other costs." Well said!
JG--Thanks! Now get back to that sermon! And I gotta get back to some job descriptions and seminar planning for a board I'm working with Thursday afternoon.
This is an inspiring response to the materialistic world's, "If you're so smart, how come you ain't rich?"

Now, what can I say when I'm told, "I wouldn't read your crap if you paid me!"

(No one has said that yet, but I'm sure it's coming.)
This is a thoughtful, rational, well-thought-out, intelligent and deeply felt response to the question. Thanks for putting into words what so many of us think and feel. ... Congrats on the books!
Brilliant, as usual, Chi. I don't believe anything we do is free. I don't believe there is such a thing as a "selfless act." Human beings do the things that fulfill whatever they seek. Anything else is called work.

I have always been a writer, too. When I got paid to do it, it was not fulfilling or personally rewarding -- it just got my bills paid and helped me achieve enabling objectives so I could fulfill my personal goals. Now when I write, money is not even in the picture. In fact, I refuse to think about publishing because as soon as a third party (or fourth or fifth...) gets involved, the pen is taken out of my own hand. I am content to be a mediocre writer for the reasons you list, 1 through 6. And I love it.

Lezlie
Complete agreement with you, as usual, but not totally in agreement with Malcolm Gladwell. I think he's a bit optimistic, and he doesn't give enough credit to The Gift.

For example, I've got a lot more than 10,000 hours in on the guitar, and I'm still a long, long way from really good at it. However, I am pleased to say I'm an equally long, long way from where I started.

Whether it's music or writing or any other art or skill, it's really true practice, practice, practice. You may never get to Carnegie Hall, but you can have a helluva lot of fun trying.
Roger, I really enjoyed reading what you had to say here and regarding: "But it’s only with the advent of fictionique and OS that I’ve really written."--that's a wonderful endorsement of the two sites and should serve as an inspiration for all! Congratulations on your books being published and for the EP today!
Roger, this is one of those pieces that carries the day, the week, the month along for those of us who work so hard at finding that elusive "zone" into which we discover the right words, the images, the inspiration. You make a wonderfully well written case for creativity for its own sake. I feel good for you, and everyone you have touched on these forums. I also feel better for myself, having learned to understand my world better through your bright, compassionate eyes....
snippy--I've asked myself that first question more than once (as has my ex wife. . .) As to that other one---I say just flip um off!

Thanks Deborah---For that and for being on my favorites list.

L--Am with you on the "selfless act"! And only a real writer would use the phrase, 'taking the pen out of my hand"

TC--I don't know if I buy Gladwell's number either. By that count, you and me should be genius level.

Brtassware---Thank you!

Thanks D--It is a heartfelt endorsement of the sites and I'm really glad they recognized that. Because this is really about ALL of us.


Thanks Gary---Creativity for its own sake AND the hard work part. Nothing free there.
Terrific, Chicago Guy. What an inspirational post, and congrats on your book!!
And much as I adore Joni Mitchell, by the time I got to the video - wonderful video, by the way, I was looking for "Money for Nuthin and the Chicks For Free" -
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlPjxz4LGak

Who cares as long as you keep writing?! I loved reading this. /R
Sorry I missed this yesterday....

Yes Roger. To all of it.

I salute you.
I write on OS because it gives me a chance to not only see what other thinkers are doing at any moment, but it gives me the chance to connect with them. And in the process of my writing, I hope I have something that's important to communicate.

By the way: Die Biff, die.
Hi Erica! Thanks!

Suzy---you didn't miss nuthin! No time limit here.

OLN--Amen to that! And Biff? He'll get his.

Nile---Yes!!!!!
Thank you. There are a zillion reasons to write; money is one, but only one. And it certainly is not the most important reason.

A few years ago, I decided to give up on writing (even though I wrote my first "novel" when I was seven. It was about a bear). I was unemployed and concluded that writing was ultimately a hobby I could not afford to pursue. After all, it wasn't putting food on my table! That being the case, it could only be the crazy dream of a crazy person. Suffice it to say that when I finally landed a job, I never looked back. Writing was officially dead to me.

Fast-forward. A few months before he died, my dad (while sick and bedridden -- he was a prolific writer, btw) asked "when are you going to start writing?" Left me speechless, especially since I had not at any point shared with him the fact that the dream of writing would have to be realized in another lifetime.

Those who are dying have a terrible habit of reminding you of who you really are. By the look on his face, I knew that my dad was remembering for me that seven year old novelist.

So here I am. Writing. And after I post this, I'm actually going to write the first sentence of my new novel. Whether it is good or bad, whether it will earn me money or exist solely for my own entertainment really doesn't matter. I have a zillion reasons to write, and money is not -- nor will it ever be -- the most important.
Such a worthwhile piece that tells it like it really is. You are doing well with your commitment and it will pay off in even more ways that it has already.
Thanks Pete! Here's to all of us becoming great!

Seventh Sister---Now THAT is a story. Seriously. You might want to think about sharing pieces of your book as you go along. You'd see the reactions. And from reading that comment--you'd get good ones. I know I'd read it!

Thanks Sheila! Here's to it paying off for all of us!
I seem to only occasionally lurk these days, but I have to come out of hibernation to applaud this piece. Those who get it, get it; those who don't, never will. There is always an investment and always a return, (and always payments to make.) I haven't made enough at writing to buy a couch... but I also never write for free.
Loved this! My fun writing, the writing I enjoy most, is worth more to me than any money I may make through tech writing. I daydream about stories I want to weave together when time allows. I might receive a paycheck for typing "Right-click to print", but I still feel empty. My "free" writing has always been what really feeds me.
Kind of tragic. You came to the truth that writers aren't paid any more, for writing anything. But you rationalize it because you believe it gives pleasure to people who read your things. Well, people don't read any more.

I'm writing into a void, and so are you. Only ten percent of the American public even knows how to read. It's unlikely anyone, even you, will read what I've written. The main reasons I write are spite and anger. It's really all that's left to people who went to the trouble of writing, and realize that it's absolutely pointless.
CG -- AWESOME!!!! And the books to be published....AWESOMER!!!

(now you know WHY I'll not get published) :)
Jeff---Always a pleasure to see your name! And you make a really good point I suspect I will need to remember as I respond to everyone---"Those who get it, get it. Those who don't never will"
Reflecting---Somebody else who writes "RIGHT CLICK PRINT!" Yay!!!!!!! Me too!! There is a piece on fictionique called---I think--"Hemingway's Cubicle" that I wrote for all of us in that club.

Hi Neutron---Thanks for commenting!

500Words---Back at you!

Hey JD---Always a pleasure!
yes, yes, yes, yes. damn, i love when you write what is inside my head, roger. especially #2 and what lea and gary and jeremiah and so many other of our pals here said above this comment. this piece glows, friend, like you.
So glad this was free so I could learn what writing for free really means. It's been an honor to watch your writing transform itself into this level of consistent perfection.
Beautifully put, Roger. Neither I nor you have one of those tidy spread sheet minds with nice, solid quantifiable numbers to put in each cell.

Well, the word cell is offputting right there, for me. I work a job to pay my rent and bills, but it's not my real work.

rated
I've never said this to you before, but you are a beautiful writer. I enjoy your stuff immensely. You have taken what we all feel and made it real here, and it is right that this was published on OS, it makes this place what it is. I tell my husband that I cannot believe all of the beautiful stuff I get to read - for free. Do you still take on editing work?
besides, Old Man River keeps on rollin'

R
^
Thanks Candace! You call to mind how important the back and forth is between us all. The comments propel the writing in so many ways.

Sally!!!! Nobody transforms anything without somebody else. And I can vividly remember times when the only encouragement I got was from you. "Thank you" doesn't even begin to cover it.


Melissa---That is a great way to put it--- "My real work"


Brazen---Thank you! I'd be delighted to talk about editing. Please PM me and I'll send you contact info.


JP---You got that right!
I agree with all you have said and write for the reasons you described.
Still, I am old, and remember the good old days when writers got paid for their efforts and can think of nothing bad to say about that state of affairs. R
Gerald--I have nothing bad to say about that state of affairs either. It calls to mind something I heard Garrison Keillor say about the changes in the music business when record sales vanished. He said that now musicians do what they used to do before records. They make money by traveling, doing concerts and singing their songs.

That is obviously not a direct analogy to writing, but it prompts the thought that maybe there is a new way for writers. One we might not even have thought of it.

My guess is that there will be a new way, but that it will spring from a level of public/private partnership we had yet to figure out.

Whatever happens, I bet it will be a good story.
I love this. I write for all the same reasons.
I'm a well-published writer and I have to say, if I could stop, I would :). But as the scraps of paper and the napkins all over my house attest, there's no way. I have a full-time job and would kill to write full time instead. But for the money? No. I write because I can't stop. I write because I have no choice. I write because ideas come to me and I know they're different than those that come to other people and I want to capture them before they slip away. And when a character comes to me and takes over my life for a while and makes me have to tell their story, I feel like I have grown. So, yes, it would be nice to make a living as a writer. But if I can capture those characters, that's enough of a challenge and makes it all worth while. Still, if I win the lottery, I'm buying a big stack of napkins and staying home!
Only professionals and people serious about writing understand the value of writing for free. "Write for free" was the best piece of advice I ever got and I would not be where I am today without it. When people ask me how to become a writer artist etc etc I tell them you have to start off doing it for free. They pretty much scoff at the idea, expecting to be instantly and generously paid for their work though they are not quite even at the level of "just starting out"- In my mind I think, this is the sign of someone who truly is not serious about writing and does not really care nor have what it takes to be a writer
Thanks Pauline!

Florida--Am with you on those napkins!

Hayley--Looks like there are a lot of those folks in these parts!
Great piece, Roger -- writing is an investment, and at its best, it is its own reward. But getting paid for it is icing on the cake
Many, many thanks for putting your writing soul out there for us to share. I gave up good money and retired early to finally get the time to write. I have been languishing of late. I "finished" a novel before its time and ended it the way I thought might sell. I lack patience, and I should have known better, but experience is my best teacher. You have reminded me of what and why I write. Maybe now I'll be able to revise and tell the truth instead of pandering.
HG---Really GOODE icing!

beauty---I can't count the number of times I've written it, titled it or forced it the way I thought it would sell and the piece has been SPECTACULARLY bad. Yesterday I spent 2 hours forcing out a poem that I KNEW was bad. Pandering was my middle name. And about an hour or so I realized that version one of the piece had no point. And version two I was grabbing at any point I could just to impress someone. Net result? The poem sucked.

I hear you!
nicely stated. We too often forget there is more to compensation than just money, as nice as money would be. Value does not have to be economic. Well deserved EP.
Hey Procopius! I need a history fix. Come back sometime!
It could be the lingering effects of a Catholic education in grade school, but I feel guilty that I am reading your writing for free, Roger. However, the best things in life are free.
Paul Haider, Chicago
Paulie-- The best things in life EXCEPT for buttered popcorn.
I've been growing richer every day since I started writing, reading and looking around here a couple of weeks ago. I like this OS trading floor! I welcome suggestions on good things to read, writing etc.
Hey Pandora---Sorry. Didn't see your comment earlier. I guess OS is kind of like a really fast moving stream that sometimes has flecks of gold, lost diamonds and a lot of sewage pumped in. For all of us who at one time or another had what some would call "authority problems" it offers the best and worst of a virtual place whee there IS no authority.

Probobly the biggest mistake I ever made here was confusing real with virtual. But I suppose for some, that's not a problem.

Best thing I did was to commit to myself that I'd answer people when they wrote.

There are trolls. Usually they come at the end of the cycle of a piece. But over the years, the amount of comments I've had to delete I can count on one hand. They've all either been unrelated to the piece, mean spirited, racist, or some combination of the above.

The support you can get for your writing really is priceless. There are big time pros here. And real quality. And real crap.

Quite a trip!